Track your car. Anti-theft devices can be helpful, but almost nothing can stop a determined professional thief. “If you have something that somebody really, really desires, they will get it no matter what,” Leyba says. “Think ahead, so you can get your car back.” Leyba is a fan of devices that alert you if your vehicle has been stolen and track its whereabouts. Some can also disable your car. “Tracking devices are very effective in helping authorities recover stolen vehicles,” says the NICB’s Glawe. “Some systems employ telematics, which combine GPS and wireless technologies to allow remote monitoring of a vehicle. If the vehicle is moved, the system will alert the owner and the vehicle can be tracked via computer.” You can buy a system on Amazon for about $250 (some require subscription services for about $10 to $15 per month).
Don’t leave your car running unattended. It really doesn’t get any easier to steal a car. I once mistakenly left my Prius parked and running on a Manhattan street overnight because it was pouring rain, I was in a rush, and I didn’t hear the motor running. I had the fob on me and didn’t realize the car was on until the next day, when I miraculously found it unstolen. Yes, I know how lucky I am: Half of the 6,858 vehicles stolen in New York City in 2020 were taken while they were running.
I’ve also been guilty of leaving my car running to warm it up in the winter, aka “puffing.” Lucky again, because many cars are stolen this way. It has become such a problem that it’s now illegal to leave your car running and unlocked in many states. It’s not only bad for the environment but also unnecessary. According to CR’s chief mechanic, John Ibbotson, your engine needs only 10 to 15 seconds to warm up before you can drive off. If it’s your own comfort you’re concerned about, Friedlander suggests using a remote starter, which allows you to start the engine while the car is locked.
Never leave your keys in the car. About half of vehicle thefts happen when doors are unlocked and keys or fobs are in the car. “The beauty of a key fob is that you don’t need it in your hand to start the car,” Milchtein says. “The downside is you don’t need to have it in your hand to turn off the car, either.” The best thing to do is never remove the fob from your pocket or your bag.
Don’t use your fob to lock the car. A growing opportunity for car thieves is breaking into cars by hacking the keyless entry systems, which use low-power radio signals. “These signals can easily be intercepted or amplified by tech-savvy thieves to trick the car’s internal computer system into thinking the fob is in contact with the door or ignition when it’s actually somewhere else,” Friedlander says.
Leyba says that clicking the buttons on your fob amplifies the signals and makes it easier for hackers to intercept them, especially when you click repeatedly to lock it. To reduce the chances that your fob will be hacked, use the switch inside the car or your key to lock the doors. Glen Rockford, CR’s Digital Lab privacy program manager, says even using the sensor on the door handle to lock and unlock your door is better than using the key fob (if your car has this capability) because a hacker would have to be much closer to sniff out your key fob’s radio signal (think 3 feet as opposed to 100 feet).
Don’t leave identifying information. Imagine having your car stolen and your identity stolen, too. Or being targeted at home. Keep a picture of your registration and insurance documents on your cell phone and keep all papers with your name, address, and other personal information at home. In August 2020, Sarah Noble’s Dodge diesel truck was stolen when her son took it to go fishing near Wellington, Colo. The police found and returned the truck three weeks later, but the thieves, knowing Noble’s address from the registration, stole the truck again that same night and months later used the title that was also in the car to sell it.